Government and defense: seeking innovators to exceed expectations
Building ten submarines for the price of nine: a typical task for today’s defense industry engineers
Industry experts agree that finding and developing top talent is key to innovation and success in this critical marketplace
By Skip Waugh
Lean budgets. More innovation. Complex technology. Expectations are high when your biggest customer is today’s federal government. The new normal in the government contracting world is agility and forward thinking.
The administration’s proposed 2015 federal budget projects flat spending, but few program cancellations, in defense. This brings a sense of stability to companies with contracts already in the pipeline. But defense technology continues to evolve, and contractors realize they need to deliver innovative projects and services – for less.
Companies whose client rosters are well balanced between government/defense and commercial sectors seem better situated for the future. Those with commercial aerospace units expect record production growth in the coming year. Federal policy changes, major new programs like the Affordable Care Act, and the continued push to modernize government agencies, will all open windows of opportunity for government contracting companies.
According to Shravan Goli, president of Dice.com, an online career site for technical pros, recruiting is starting to pick up after a down 2013. “Hiring managers and employers tell us that certainty around the defense budget and project funding allows them to return to recruiting professionals,” says Goli.
“There’s no doubt cybersecurity is the universal need right now. It’s the fastest growing request on Dice.com and up nearly two hundred percent from last year.” Goli adds that he is seeing solid demand for software developers as well.
He notes that certifications are required for government work. “We see lots of requests for CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) certification,” says Goli. “More than half the tech workforce in the Washington, DC region has some sort of technology-related certification, compared to just thirty-eight percent in Silicon Valley.”
Tech professionals are finding government/defense companies eager to hire them. The jobs offer a chance to work on complex problems with innovative technologies. But candidates need to demonstrate solid technical skills, and do it in ways that go beyond a resume. “There are more opportunities for employers to research candidates and do it quickly through products that aggregate information. For example, a hiring manager might check out a developer’s contributions on GitHub,” says Goli. “It’s important to show technology isn’t just your job, it’s your passion.”
Exelis invests in its workforce
Exelis (McLean, VA) is a diversified aerospace, defense, information and services company that provides mission-critical solutions to military, government and commercial customers in the U.S. and globally.
While much of the defense industry suffered through tough times a few years ago, proactive planning allowed Exelis to stay ahead of the curve. One key focus that kept the company on track was its investment in its workforce. According to Erica Jeffries, chief inclusion and diversity officer, encouraging the company’s people to stay at the top of their craft is a big part of the strategic plan. “Our CEO David Melcher is extremely committed to investing in our people and making sure we have the best workforce in the defense industry,” says Jeffries.
The company offers access to professional development training and certification courses, and encourages employees to pursue other degrees. “In the tech industry and in a company like Exelis, we know our engineers need to be at the top of their game.”
Current needs at Exelis
Exelis is looking to fill positions across the engineering spectrum, especially in mechanical, software and electrical engineering. The company wants to tap experts in their fields who are willing to share their knowledge. It is also expanding its search to include younger engineers seeking a long-term career.
In addition to technical skills, Exelis looks for professionals who are driven, self-motivated, intellectually curious, teamwork-oriented and eager to learn new things.
Exelis partners with organizations around the country. The company participates in conferences offered by the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.
Veterans and their spouses are also part of the employment picture. The company works with Hiring Our Heroes and the Military Spouse Employment Partnership sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
Exelis offers a number of jobs requiring security clearance. Most veterans meet that requirement since they come out of the military with a secret or higher clearance. Jeffries notes, though, that candidates don’t require a security clearance or military experience when starting at Exelis, as long as they are eligible for clearance.
Rockwell Collins: growth opportunities for innovators
Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA) is another government contractor with several strategies to recruit and retain the best engineers and IT professionals.
Rockwell Collins provides avionics and information systems to aircraft manufacturers as well as government agencies. According to Steve Schulz, director of talent acquisition, the company offers some unique opportunities.
Rockwell Collins tech professionals work on advanced avionics communications systems, Schulz explains. “Getting the chance to work on challenging projects helps a person develop and leverage their skills and backgrounds,” he says.
The company focuses on a balanced business model. “We have opportunities in our business unit focused on commercial aviation as well as government and defense work,” he says. Engineers can move from one unit to the other as projects are completed. “This helps from a job security perspective since those markets are cyclical.”
Rockwell Collins considers degrees and technical experience when considering new hires. Intangibles are equally important. “We look for individuals who demonstrate a strong moral compass, integrity, communication skills and initiative,” says Schulz. “Those qualities and characteristics are becoming increasingly important in today’s workforce, and they influence an individual’s ability to be innovative.” He adds that fresh ideas and the ability to view a challenge from a new perspective are paramount.
Finding, retaining and developing staff
The company partners with professional organizations and colleges to help identify potential candidates. Once on board, employees can take advantage of employee resource groups spanning a number of diverse demographic groups.
The company’s senior leadership considers career development a top priority. The well-established Rockwell Collins University is available for employees with courses in eight areas from engineering and Lean principles to leadership and business studies.
Rockwell Collins strongly believes in mentoring. Targeted mentoring for diverse individuals, informal mentoring, and quarterly speed mentoring events help employees make vital contacts within the organization.
Schulz is positive about employment prospects for the foreseeable future. “I am most encouraged by our already-won business and the programs we have on the books,” he says.
The company is looking at emerging markets like Brazil, China, the Middle East, India and Russia for future growth potential. “With the growth and maturity of our business, the opportunity will be there for our people locally and globally.”
Sarah Nyberg sees the big picture at Rockwell Collins
Sarah Nyberg is a principal program manager in the commercial systems division of Rockwell Collins. She’s responsible for several software products and works with departments across the organization to get products ready for launch. She gets a firsthand look at the full product lifecycle and what it takes to get equipment installed on an aircraft.
Nyberg got her bachelors in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) with a focus on radio frequency (RF) engineering. She graduated in 2004 and started at Rockwell Collins the same year.
She began as a test equipment engineer and put her RF knowledge to use developing production test solutions for avionics. Her job was to build test stations destined for the company’s production facility and worldwide service centers. Test stations are used to ensure that new avionics work before installation on any aircraft.
Over the next few years, she worked on a variety of test equipment projects. She was a systems engineer and senior systems engineer from 2006 to 2010, working on the company’s flight management system products for business and regional aircraft.
Learning the business side
Nyberg has completed an MBA to get a broader understanding of the business. “As I was understanding my technical job, I found it interesting to see how business decisions were occurring. The business side generally drives the technical. The MBA was a good way to see that business piece,” she says.
After she finished her MBA, Nyberg moved into the role of senior engineering manager. She managed people for about a year, which she found quite an adjustment. “You learn about people on an individual level instead of focusing solely on the work.” Her abilities managing people led to her current role in 2011.
She doesn’t work directly on government issues, but finds that a government contracting mindset drives all the company’s policies and procedures. “Our products are supported in the field for decades,” she says. “We build on them without obsoleting our old versions.”
Nyberg is currently working on the company’s Pro Line Fusion avionics system. Originally designed for commercial use, the system is now finding other applications. “We are seeing it cross into the military side of the business,” says Nyberg.
Women’s leadership at Rockwell Collins
In 2006, Rockwell Collins launched its first employee network groups. Nyberg was part of the steering committee that started the women’s employee network in 2008. The group has now grown to over 1,000 members.
“The group is still growing and is building women’s leadership around our company,” she says proudly. It supports professional growth through informal mentoring, networking events and access to career development resources.
Nita Patel leads teams and develops technology at L-3
Nita Patel is a systems and software engineering manager at L-3 Warrior Systems’ Insight division (Londonderry, NH). Warrior Systems is a unit of L-3 (New York, NY). L-3 provides aerospace systems, national security solutions and a broad range of electronic and communications systems and services for military and commercial customers.
Patel’s current role mixes management and technical objectives. “Not only do I lead two incredibly talented teams, but I also get to work to advance technology and develop mission-critical capabilities for our warfighters,” she says.
Patel leads systems engineering and software engineering groups. She establishes software processes for configuration management, design reviews and issue tracking. She is responsible for creating systems engineering guidelines and organizational processes.
Along with her management responsibilities, she is the technical lead/chief engineer for the development of advanced handheld target location devices. Her team designed, built and tested the targeting system. The system included advanced sensors and proprietary technology for obtaining precision bearings from celestial and terrestrial bodies.
She has also contributed to software architecture definition for an advanced thermal imaging platform. In addition, she was involved in systems engineering for an infrared fusion goggle system.
Engineering feeds a creative passion
As a child, Patel enjoyed trying to “figure things out.” Encouraged by her parents to get a good education, Patel found that engineering was a perfect fit. “There are usually many ways to solve a problem,” she says. “I think it’s a fun challenge to be a real-life MacGyver.”
Patel graduated magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX) in 1995, with a double bachelors in electrical engineering and mathematics. She went on to receive her masters in computer engineering in 1998.
She worked at RS Information Systems (Norman, OK), Insight Technology (the predecessor of the Warrior Systems division where she works now), and Raytheon/Texas Instruments (McKinney, TX) prior to joining L-3 in 2008.
Patel has received a number of awards, including L-3 Engineer of the Year in 2013 and New Hampshire Engineer of the Year in 2011. She’s active in Toastmasters International and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). She is currently the international chair and president for IEEE’s Women in Engineering. She says it has been a great experience leading and defining the group’s business strategy. “I have also enjoyed interacting with inspiring women engineers from around the world.”
Demand for technology
Patel says her company is seeing a shift in defense customer expectations. “Customers are demanding new capabilities that push the technical envelope,” she notes. “They are asking for more features that have technological risks associated with them, while providing less development time and funding.”
Patel says this is a universal challenge. “With fewer dollars, more competition and incredible technological leaps in the commercial marketplace, it is an immediate challenge the industry has to manage.”
General Dynamics C4 Systems takes its work and its culture seriously
General Dynamics C4 Systems (C4S, Scottsdale, AZ) is a business unit of General Dynamics that develops and integrates secure communications and information systems. Its specialties are cyber defense, secure computing, and communications networking. General Dynamics C4S works with the U.S. DoD, other government agencies, and organizations around the globe.
Support for the DoD and other government agencies is the focus of the company’s work, and its advanced technology creates a challenging and rewarding workplace. According to Nancy Taylor, manager of organizational development at General Dynamics C4S, the company is passionate about its technology and works to create solutions that meet the needs of its customers.
Taylor uses a formula to describe how success is achieved in the work environment: S=(PT)c. The formula translates to Success=Purpose and Talent with culture as the accelerator, she explains. “What makes a company great is its clarity of purpose and knowing what talent it needs to execute its strategy,” she says. “Culture creates the kind of work environment where people get things done.”
General Dynamics C4S looks for a variety of engineers and IT professionals, with a strong emphasis on software and systems. Typical jobs include systems engineers, software engineers, developers and manufacturing engineers. There are openings for new graduates and experienced professionals, and a focus on hiring military veterans. The company participates in a number of college and career hiring events throughout the year.
What you think and what you know
Candidates are evaluated on their “learning orientation” in addition to their technical skills, Taylor says.
“Hiring managers are looking for whether a candidate can grasp meaning from their experiences, distill insights, and share them. You need to be able to digest large pieces of information and understand what it means to serve the customer while adding value.”
The company seeks employees willing to take control of their own career paths. Taylor says the organization can enable it, the manager can help enhance it, but it’s up to the employee to take ownership when it comes to career development.
Another company priority is to capture the wisdom and insight from its more experienced workforce, so new employees can expect to work alongside and learn from experienced engineering and technology pros. “Knowledge transfer is important if the next generation of General Dynamics C4 Systems employees is to be ready for the future. Knowledge transfer, coupled with employee development, will prepare business units like General Dynamics C4 Systems to anticipate the next wave of technology,” Taylor says.
GDEB’s Danielle Lemieux has a passion for process improvement
Danielle Lemieux is a manager of manufacturing engineering at General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB, Groton, CT). This organization, also a division of General Dynamics, builds submarines for the U.S. Navy.
Lemieux works at the GDEB Quonset Point facility in North Kingstown, RI. Her responsibilities include management of welding engineering, lifting and handling engineering, and computer-aided manufacturing.
Lemieux graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA) with a 1991 bachelors degree in mechanical engineering. She chose mechanical engineering because she felt it offered the most versatility. She received her masters in engineering management in 1996 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY).
Lemieux accepted a position with General Dynamics Electric Boat in 1991 and started with the environmental systems engineering group in 1992, where she worked on submarine systems design engineering.
She moved into IT as a project manager in 1996. She worked on various software development automation projects. Teams responsible for building submarines used the software.
Over the next ten years she concentrated on increasing her network of contacts. She worked closely with several Quonset Point teams and finished a job rotation at that location with the process engineering group in 2007. She was offered a permanent position as supervisor of process engineering in 2008, and became manager of manufacturing engineering in 2013.
Lean Six Sigma helps this manager
Lemieux finds her current position has deepened her passion for process engineering. Quonset Point is a Lean Six Sigma engineering facility. “I can apply that approach to absolutely anything,” says Lemieux. “With those tools you take a process and break it down into its basic steps. From there you determine what adds value and what doesn’t. You try to make what is left more efficient and repeatable.”
The methodology allows her to take on increased responsibility. She can rely on her team to accomplish the tasks in front of them. “I’ve never been a welder and I’m not a lifting and handling engineer,” she says. “But I have a really good team, and my job is to give them the opportunity and platform to do what they do well. And that makes this facility more competitive.”
Lemieux says working for General Dynamics Electric Boat is “an absolute privilege. We build the most strategic and powerful weapon platforms in the world,” she says. “We work tirelessly to innovate and to add capability for less cost.”
To stay competitive, she says, the organization has to continuously innovate and improve. She points to an $18 billion contract awarded in April by the federal government to build ten Virginia-class submarines for the cost of nine.
Lemieux understands the importance of the work she is involved in and delivers that message to her team. She believes, “What we do is just as important as if we were serving in the military.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED GOVERNMENT AND DEFENSE CONTRACTORS
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|Exelis (McLean, VA)
|Global aerospace, defense and information solutions
|General Dynamics C4 Systems
|Communications, information systems and cyber
|General Dynamics Electric Boat (Groton, CT)
|Submarines for the U.S. Navy
|L-3 (New York, NY)
|Aerospace systems, national security solutions and communications and electronic systems and
services for military and commercial customers
|Northrop Grumman Corp (Falls Church, VA)
|Systems, cyber, C4ISR, and logistics and
|Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA)
|Aviation electronics solutions for government and commercial applications
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